Creating Healthier Menu Recipes By Understanding Calories

Even before we ever heard the words COVID-19, the consumer trends were dictating the need to lighten up menu items by means of calorie reduction and the use of more fresh items in recipes that didn’t necessarily amount to a salad. Now, months into the pandemic, we’ve moved past “trend” and into “necessity” in regards to health. And while creating healthy menu recipes might seem easy enough, we both know that it’s a process that takes time, analysis and an understanding of where some of those hidden calories might even be hiding. For this reason, we’re kicking off a series on how to create healthy menu recipes and installment number one is all about, you guessed it, calories (and we know, the title was a dead giveaway). Without further adieu, here’s some calorie basics and how you can make some simple changes to your menu recipes to create healthier versions for your health-conscious customers. 

Each ingredient has it’s own unique nutrient density profile and caloric value. Reducing calories is all about understanding ingredients.

Understanding Calories

When you’re whipping up a dish in the kitchen, the mind typically goes directly to flavor, especially if you’re a chef. You may ask yourself, “How do I want this to taste?” “What experience would I like my customer to have?”. And we’re not here to argue with you, flavor is still absolutely paramount, however flavor often comes with a price: high caloric density. But why is that? Well, aside from salt and pepper, cooking a dish usually includes another staple to infuse mouth-watering flavor, and that’s fat. Fat is necessary for so many components to a dish, but when it comes to calories, fat is the most dense of the macronutrients with a whopping 9 calories per gram. 

Wait, What is a Macronutrient? 

We are glad you asked! A macronutrient is fancy term for large nutrients within an ingredient, you may know them as carbohydrates, protein, and fat. What you may not know is that each macronutrient was not created equal, calorically that is. This is especially important to know when creating healthy menu recipes in order to balance these 3 main nutrients for flavor, consistency and nutrient density. Here’s a quick breakdown of macronutrient caloric density by gram:

Fat- 9 calories/gram

Carbohydrate- 4 calories/gram

Protein- 4 calories/gram

Reducing calories becomes a lot simpler when you come to understand their source. While baking tends to be a measured, scientific process, cooking is not. Many times, the way that a dish is prepared can add extra calories.

Reducing Calories in a Recipe

Our MealBuilder data analytics reports have gathered that once a dish reaches approximately 1,000 calories, customers begin to look at lighter options. So if 1,000 calories is the baseline, that would make for a great starting point. Most consumers are already educated to understand that a typical meal when dining out is served in an over-sized portion. So logically one would deduce that eating half of the “baseline” would constitute a light meal with another serving left-over for later. With this in mind, there are a few basic ways that you can reduce the calories in your staple dishes in order to reach a broader audience.

See our meal builder nutrition calculator in action here.

Changing Your Cooking Method

Creating healthy menu recipes begins with taking inventory of your menu items above that 1,000 calories threshold and taking into consideration certain factors that would increase caloric value. One of the primary ways that you can reduce calories in your menu recipe is through your cooking method. 

Remember that little explanation earlier about how fat lends the highest amount of calories per gram? This factor comes into play in a big way when frying foods. For example, a medium sized (100g) potato contains 93 calories and 3 grams of fat, however, that same 100g potato fried up and served as french fries contains 17g of fat and 319 calories! 

Cooking method matters. Frying a vegetable can triple its caloric value.

In this case, it’s easy to see where the calories are coming from. Fried foods are notoriously high in calories. Understanding your alternatives will help you not only reduce the caloric value of your menu recipe items but will also provide you with a variety of tasteful experiences for your customers. Below you can see a quick list of healthy cooking methods for your reference. 

Alternative Cooking Methods for Calorie Reduction

  • Baking
  • Broiling
  • Boiling 
  • Steaming
  • Grilling 
  • Poaching 
  • Roasting 
  • Stir Frying 

Pivoting your cooking method is a quick fix that can very easily reduce calories but cutting the added fat from frying. But what happens when you are using “healthy” ingredients and you recipe is still more calorically dense than you would like it to be? 

Recognizing Healthy Foods that are High in Calories

You might be surprised to discover that some of the most nutritionally-dense foods can pack a ton of calories, especially foods that are high in “good fats”, legumes that pack a lot of protein as well as starchy fruits and vegetables that are high in carbohydrates. 

High Calorie “Healthy Fat” Sources

  • Avocado (322 calories/1 fruit)
  • Nuts (almonds, macadamia, peanuts) (424 calories per ½ cup peanuts)
  • Nut Butters (almond butter, peanut butter, etc) (200+ calories for 2 tbsp)
  • Seeds (chia, sesame, flax) (138 calories/ 1tbsp Chia)
  • Seed Butters (sunflower seed, tahini, etc) (180+ calories/ 2 tbsp)
  • Oil (almond oil, olive oil, sesame oil, coconut oil, flaxseed oil) (120 calories/tbsp)

High Calorie “Healthy Protein” Sources

  • Chickpeas (267 calories/cup)
  • Black beans (224 calories/cup cooked)
  • Soybeans (235 calories/ cup/ cooked)
  • Lentils (230 calories/cup/cooked)
  • Salmon (313 calories/ 6 oz)
  • Chicken Thighs & Drums (dark meat)
  • Grass-fed beef (150 calories/ 95% lean ground beef/ 4oz)


High-Calorie Healthy Starches

  • Quinoa (222 calories/cup)
  • Whole Grain Rice (216 calories/cup)
  • Whole Grain Pasta (174 calories/cup)

Healthy High Calorie Fruits 

  • Banana (100 calories)
  • Mango (200 calories)
  • Pineapple (82 calories/cup)
  • Coconut (283 calories/cup)
  • Raisins (and other dried fruits)
  • Grapes (104 calories/cup)
  • Dates (414 calories/cup)
  • Avocado (322 calories)
  • Pears (102 calories)

Healthy High Calorie Vegetables

  • Sweet Potato (114 calories/cup)
  • Corn (132 calories/cup)
  • Yam (177 calories/cup)
  • Peas (118 calories/cup) 
  • Parsnip (100 calories/cup)
  • Butternut Squash (63 calories)

Where are the Calories coming from? 

Branded Products

While using branded ingredients is certainly convenient, all signs point to processed foods when answering this question. Processed foods are created to sustain long periods of time on a shelf while maintaining flavor and proper texture. 

Manufacturers of major brands that we know and love often overcompensate with high amounts of fat, sugar and salt to create an irresistible flavor combination for the consumer. That being said, when in the purchasing process, it is important to consider how much control you would like to exercise over your recipe. Creating marinades, sauces and dressings in bulk and in-house will allow you and your culinary team the luxury of experimenting with the caloric density of your items by using an ingredient analysis platform like MenuCalc. Instead of creating a flavorful dish and then sending out to a dietitian to be analyzed, changes to a recipe can be made in real-time with an accurate report of the nutrient content. 

For more on caloric density or to get started experimenting with your recipes, visit us at

Recent Posts

What is MenuCalc?

See how easy it can be to provide your diners with the required nutrition information by signing up for MenuCalc’s free recipe analysis plan!

Watch A Demo

Recommended Reading